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Biblical characters are not masks in a play. They are not there to interpret a role or a character (good or bad, traitor or betrayed etc.). They are human beings, with all the colours and traits of the human as a whole.
Some of these characters have received a particular calling in view of a task and collective salvation, but they have never ceased to be men and women in the full sense. So goodness, purity, cheating, theft, blessings, hugs, fraternity, fratricides intersect and give rise to a true story of salvation for all. The protagonists of Genesis are close to us and speak to us because they appear in the nakedness of their emotions and ambiguities, without fear to be presented even in the pettiness and contradictions of the human condition. And so they build up a salvation that is possible for all and a great cure for any ideology, including many ideologies of fraternity.
Joseph, the hero of the last (great) cycle of Genesis, is not remembered as the fourth patriarch (“The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”, that’s how it will always be said instead). Joseph is the son of Jacob and Rachel, but, above all, Joseph is one of the brothers, and his story is a great lesson on the grammar of Biblical brotherhood (and ours).
Jacob-Israel begot Joseph from Rachel, the woman with whom he fell in love at the well. His father had a special love for Joseph, an explicit and known preference. The text is not afraid to tell us, ‘Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons’ (37:3). For this reason ‘he made him a robe of many colours.’(37:3). This coat (ketônet passîm) was special and different from those of the other brothers. It was long, with sleeves that covered the palm of the hand, and maybe colourful and embroidered, too – for Thomas Mann the coat was Rachel’s robe that her father Laban had given her for her wedding, and that had been bought from merchants and thought to have belonged to a king’s daughter once (cf.: Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers). It was certainly a luxurious robe, and therefore not suitable for those who have to do physical work. It was a message of preference and status within the clan that came loud and clear to the other siblings: ‘when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him’ (37:4). In this complex family situation – sons by his wives loved differently by Jacob, sons by his slave women, a favourite son – it just adds another element to further complicate the story. Joseph is a dreamer, but above all he is a public story-teller who keeps sharing his dreams. Joseph, unlike his father, does not dream of Heaven, nor does he hear the words of YHWH (in the whole cycle of Joseph, God remains very much in the background, the scene is taken completely by inter-human relationships). The protagonist of his dreams is he himself: ‘Hear this dream that I have dreamed: Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.’ (37:6-7). So his brothers ‘hated him even more for his dreams and for his words’ (37:8). He then had another dream: ‘the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me’ (37:9). After the second dream, Jacob (who was recognized as the ‘sun’ of the dream) rebuked him (37:10), and his brothers (‘the eleven stars’) ‘were jealous of him’ (37:11). Joseph, the son with the royal robe, already unloved by his brothers because beloved by his father, foolishly, naively, with the beautiful impetuosity and immaturity of youth, but also because of his temperament-task (dreams are part of the calling of Joseph), tells those dreams that ultimately transform the feeling of envy-jealousy of his brothers in real hatred and then into a plan of action to eliminate him. In fact, when Joseph joins his brothers who are pasturing their flock near Shechem, sent (unwisely) by his father to see if they were doing well (shalom), as soon as they catch sight of him from afar they cry: ‘Here comes this dreamer. [the master of dreams]’ (37:19). And so they deliberate to kill him (‘Come now, let us kill him’ (37:20). Then, following the intervention of Reuben, the eldest, they change their minds and decide to throw him in a pit in the desert (‘Shed no blood; throw him into this pit’; 37:22). Finally, as suggested by Judah, they sell him to a caravan of merchants passing by (‘let us sell him to the Ishmaelites’ (37.27).
This tragic end of Joseph – that we later discover to be of a saving effect, too, but now we do not know, and we should not know – depends on one crucial element: the brothers believe the dreams of Joseph. They are the interpreters, and they read the contents of those dreams as a true revelation or prophecy. It is the power of the truth of his dreams and his words that condemn Joseph. If the brothers had not seen the potential in Joseph to become the ‘first sheaf’ of the family, they would have only derided him as a self-important, vain youngster. Instead, they recognize that the predilection of the father may be at the service of a divine plan and a natural talent that elevate Joseph above them.
With Joseph, then, a new type of intra-family conflict makes its first appearance. Until now, the conflicts in the house of Abraham were dualistic: Cain / Abel, Sarai / Hagar, Jacob / Esau, Leah / Rachel. Now the conflict is between a brother and his other brothers. We are facing community discrimination, for collective envy-jealousy that results in a violent persecution and, finally, expulsion, which is very close to fratricide.
Collective envy towards an individual is a serious and widespread social, organizational and community illness. We see it every time a group creates a certain perverse solidarity within itself through the process of envy-jealousy towards a person that turns into ostracism and persecution of that person by all the others. It happens (almost) always that in order to justify themselves, the persecutors find reasons for the guilt of the persecuted, thereby covering up from themselves and all others the only real reason: jealousy-envy (even in the biblical text we find a passage where the narrator, on the basis of ancient traditions, leaves the possibility of a partial shared responsibility of Joseph open (37:2, 10)).
Furthermore, it is not uncommon that the first reason for the persecution arises from the “dreams” of the persecuted. A member of a group that was already standing out for some reason, communicates – to colleagues, community members, … – a life plan, a plan for reform, a greater vision. The audience interprets the “dream”, and knowing the quality of the dreamer, they believe that those projects that are larger than theirs will probably come true. The envy-jealousy kicks off (they are twin sisters), and not infrequently the plan, too, to eliminate the “master of dreams”. This particular type of envy – the envy for the dreams of others – is particularly insidious and harmful, and it is activated by the presence of a talent in a member of the same group (all jealousies develop between peers), because it is his ability to dream of great things and implement them. This envy-jealousy towards the other arises from the lack of dreams in us that could be just as great and beautiful. In such relational processes, the presence of privilege (the clothes and dreams) is real, it is not invented by the envious, it is only interpreted as a threat instead of being seen as a common good. For this reason, this envy (especially when it develops within our primary communities) can only be cured through reconciliation with the talent of the other, until it feels like ours, everyone’s – it is emblematic that before they threw Joseph in the pit, his brothers ‘stripped him of his robe’ (37:23).
In similar community dynamics, the great temptation of the dreamer is to give up dreaming, and stop telling the dreams to friends. But if we do not tell our wildest dreams and vocations to anyone anymore, soon the day will come when we can no longer dream: we close our eyes to see more, and nothing happens. As long as we have someone to tell our dreams to, we still have friends (friendship is also the “place” where we can tell our biggest dreams to each other, reciprocally). Joseph told his dreams to his brothers because he considered them his friends; he was young and he trusted them (which younger brother does not trust the elder brothers?). Betraying or perverting a dream told by a friend-brother is the first crime against friendship and brotherhood (that thus remains only a matter of blood). When the envy of others snatches the colourful coat from us and kills our dreams within us, communities begin an inexorable moral and spiritual decline. And the dreamer is turned off, gets saddened, is lost.
Joseph did not stop to tell his dreams – and eventually those dreams he had told saved his brothers, too.
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 15/06/2014